“Indulging myself in a casual Graham Greene film retrospective” –March 10, 2003

Who can know what unconscious synchronic engine moves us to think and act in ways that have some connection with events as they unravel in the real world? Of late, I had been indulging myself in a casual Graham Greene film retrospective, first with Sir Carol Reed’s The Third Man, screenplay courtesy of Greene, starring Orson Welles with Joseph Cotton containing Welles’ great improvisation:

Don’t look so gloomy. After all, it’s not that awful. Remember what the fellow said, “In Italy in thirty years under the Borgias, they had terror, warfare, murder and bloodshed but they produced Michaelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love. They had five hundred years of democracy and peace. What did that produce? The cuckoo clock.” So long, Harley.

I then went on to view a British television production of The Tenth Man with Anthony Hopkins and Kristin Scott Thomas with Derek Jacoby’s over-the-top performance of a thoroughly despicable villain. This led me to search for Our Man in Havana, another Greene/Reed collaboration, based on Greene’s sly novel, starring Alec Guiness and Maureen O Hara with Burl Ives and Ernie Kovacs (and a cameo by Noel Coward). Sadly, no one has thought to bring this 1960 release into any kind of video format. I suppose one could watch Our Tailor In Panama, based on John Le Carre’s send up of Graham’s story, but as admirable an attempt as the later John Boorman film is, all the key ingredients are missing, not the least of which is the allure of Havana.

Now, comes the Phillip Noyce version of Graham Greene’s The Quiet American set in Vietnam just prior to decisive battle at Dien Bien Phu that saw the ouster of the French colonial regime and the open door way for overt American military intervention. Casting aside issues of cinematic appreciation, what I find really worth considering is Mirimax’s decision to put off theatrical release of this film after the terrorist bombings in September 2001, based on concerns about its alleged anti-American sentiments.

I am not up for rehashing US Indochina policy or whether Graham’s book is a slur on America’s good name. Having seen the film I am still wondering what would constitute its alleged anti-Americanism other that a reprise of those toxic "love or leave it" sentiments of the rollicking Vietnam years still known, as far as I know, as "The ’60s." It is, I hope, instructive to take note of Greene’s view of his book:

When my novel was eventually noticed in the New Yorker the reviewer condemned me for accusing my "best friends" (the Americans) of murder since I had attributed to them the responsibility for the great explosion — far worse than the trivial bicycle bombs — in the main square of Saigon when many people lost their lives. But what are the facts, of which the reviewer needless to say was ignorant? The Life photographer at the moment of the explosion was so well placed that he was able to take an astonishing and horrifying photograph which showed the body of a trishaw driver still upright after his legs had been blown off. This photograph was reproduced in an American propaganda magazine published in Manila over the title "the work of Ho Chi Minh" although General ThÈ had promptly and proudly claimed the bomb as his own. Who had supplied the material to a bandit who was fighting French, Caodaists and Communists?

…Perhaps there is more direct rapportage in the The Quiet American than in any other novel I have written…

Because I loved Graham Greene’s The Comedians, set in "Papa" Duvalier Haiti, which I had read just a few years ago and so I went in search of the 1967 Peter Glenville film with Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Alec Guiness, Peter Ustinov, Paul Ford, (Lillian Gish, Raymond St Jaques, Zakes Mokae, Gloria Foster, Georg Stanford Brown, James Earl Jones and Cicely Tyson). My search goes on despite the one less-than-glowing synopsis of the film I found: "Yet another of the Taylor/Burton sagas which seem to have running times as long in length [2 hours and 28 minutes] as the relationship is tenuous…"

Graham Greene continued to be controversial through the rest of his life, in part because of his associations with Fidel Castro and Panama’s General Omar Torrijos and perhaps because of his jousts with the Catholic Church that he had converted to at the urging of his first wife. In any case, other than Raymond Chandler, I can’t think of many writers of that era who were so readily convertible to the, uh, "silver screen."

In the context of real and imagined discourses on anti-Americanism and its domestic prophylactic, patriotism—not that I spend much time reminiscing—I was thinking about then-Vice President Richard Nixon’s Latin American trip in the late ’50’s and the fact that he was greeted by stone-throwing demonstrators. About the same time William J. Lederer and Eugene Burdick published their "prescient" novel of international political intrigue set in Indochina, The Ugly American (about four years later made into a film starring Marlon Brando). Leaping forward forty years, this issue is wonderfully transfused by Simon Schama in his engrossing New Yorker essay, The Unloved American: Two Centuries of Alienating Europe. Rudyard Kipling, Knut Hamsun, Charles Dickens, Robert Aron and Arnaud Dandieu are all quoted with compelling effect as to the American national egocentricity. And for a grand finale, we are given British tourist and author of Domestic Manners of the American Francis Trollope’s observation after her visits to the United States commencing in 1827:

If the citizens of the United States were indeed the devoted patriots they call themselves, they would surely not thus encrust themselves in the hard, dry, stubborn persuasion, that they are the first and best of the human race, that nothing is to be learnt, but what they are able to teach, and that nothing is worth having, which they do not possess.

And joining the chorus of foreign observers on America’s current policy with one of the more original assessments, the white hot intelligence of Martin Amis. This from his "Palace of the End" (March 4 2002, The Guardian):

This is a vital question. Why, in our current delirium of faith and fear, would Bush want things to become more theological rather than less theological? The answer is clear enough, in human terms: to put it crudely, it makes him feel easier about being intellectually null. He wants geopolitics to be less about intellect and more about gut-instincts and beliefs – because he knows he’s got them. One thinks here of Bob Woodward’s serialised anecdote: asked by Woodward about North Korea, Bush jerked forward saying, "I loathe Kim Jong II!" Bush went on to say that the execration sprang from his instincts, adding, apparently in surprised gratification, that it might be to do with his religion. Whatever else happens, we can infallibly expect Bush to get more religious: more theological.

…When the somnambulistic figure of Kim Jong II subsequently threw down his nuclear gauntlet, the "axis of evil" catchphrase or notion or policy seemed in ruins, because North Korea turned out to be much nearer to acquiring the defining WMDs, deliverable, nuclear devices, than Iraq (and the same is true of Iran). But it was explained that the North Korean matter was a diplomatic inconvenience, while Iraq’s non-disarmament remained a "crisis". The reason was strategic: even without WMDs, North Korea could inflict a million casualties on its southern neighbour and raze Seoul. Iraq couldn’t manage anything on this scale, so you could attack it. North Korea could, so you couldn’t. The imponderables of the proliferation age were becoming ponderable. Once a nation has done the risky and nauseous work of acquisition, it becomes unattackable. A single untested nuclear weapon may be a liability. But five or six constitute a deterrent.

And here is Terry Teachout’s opening paragraph from "Pedants and Partisans" (February 22, 2003, The Guardian):

There are two things desirable for fighting fundamentalists. The first is not to be one yourself. The US government’s war on the movement is somewhat compromised by the fact that it is run by scripture-spouting fanatics for whom the sanctity of human life ends at the moment of birth. This is rather like using the British National party to run ex-Nazis to earth, or hiring Henry Kissinger to investigate mass murder, as George Bush recently did by nominating him to inquire into the background to September 11. Fundamentalists of the Texan stripe are not best placed to hunt down the Taliban variety.

My sense is that the current climate (sadly) renders Schama’s incisive contribution an intellectual confection easily dismissed by realpolitikers. Amis and Teachout are, of course, critical of the Bush regime’s policy making them, in the logic of legislators of Americanism, anti-American (though it would be hard to find an alien more in love with America than Amis). Who can say what is and isn’t American in these times of an abomination like the Patriot Act (It does bring to mind John Adams’ Alien and Sedition Acts)? But then, these may again be scoundrel times, calling to mind that famous anti American Samuel Johnson’s dictum, "Patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels."

normal mailer

Norman Mailer @ 1968 Chicago, Grant Park Band Shell
foto: Robert Birnbaum

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